The Dead: An Outline Commentary

 Noted Joycean Bob Williams provides a very thorough overview of one of the most beautiful and complex of short stories from James Joyce’s Dubliners.

by Bob Williams

Lily begins the story and she begins with a funny solecism: she “was literally run off her feet” which is not literally, only figuratively, possible. This is functional as well as funny because the opening lines (up to line 51) center on Lily’s consciousness and the text carefully describes events as that consciousness would perceive and express them. Towards the end of this opening (line 45) Freddy Malins is mentioned for the first time. These opening lines efficiently establish the principal figures, the relevant facts about them and the persons important to them. Some of what we learn is irrelevant because Lily’s mind does not work relevantly. We may doubt if the information about Mr Fulham, the cornfactor, is entirely hers since his time “was a good thirty years ago if it was a day.” This is very likely not what Lily would think but this is the way that she would think it.

We have Lily’s consciousness to the first mention of a continuing theme, snow. Joyce mentions snow twenty-one times and it grows from the snow that Gabriel brushes from his boots to a snow that falls “faintly through the universe.”
The Misses Morkan fear that Freddy will arrive drunk and there will be nobody to manage him since Gabriel Conroy, their nephew, has not yet arrived. He and Gretta, his wife, do arrive, however, and Gretta goes upstairs with his aunts while he gives his wraps to Lily. He makes conversation with her rather than talks to her but gets more than he wishes when, in response to a jesting remark of his, she dismisses young men bitterly. They are, she implies, nothing but sexual predators. Gabriel shows his lack of warmth when he can think of nothing better than to give her money, thinly disguised as a holiday gift.

At the door of the drawing room he listens to the skirts of the dancers brushing against the closed door. While he waits for the dance to end, he thinks about Lily’s remark, which has “cast a gloom over him” and of the speech he is to give at dinner. He especially worries that the quotation from Browning will be too difficult for his audience. The dance in the drawing room continues as his aunts and Gretta join him. They talk and Gretta teases him for his fussy solicitude for her and their two children. He is uncomfortable at being teased and there is a hint of alienation between him and his Aunt Julia when she perceives as a continental fad the goloshes that he makes Gretta wear. This anticipates the conflict of nationalist feelings with Gabriel’s internationalism. This conflict will be more fully developed in his dispute with Molly Ivors. The dreaded event, the arrival of Freddy Malins (line 222), puts an end to their conversation.

The older aunt, Kate, sends Gabriel downstairs to check on Freddy’s condition as the dancers leave the drawing room. Julia leaves to see to the refreshments provided in a “back room.” Mr Browne, a breezy and not altogether genteel gentleman, enters from the dance. Miss Kate snubs him. (She will later speak slightingly of him and not much care that he may be in earshot when she does so.)

He jokes heavily and somewhat coarsely with the young ladies who are reduced to silence by his would-be jocular assumption of “a very low Dublin accent.” Slightly earlier (line 260) he speaks of “ladies” punch, hot, strong and sweet, a recurring motif in Finnegans Wake.

The dancing resumes. Its resumption is announced by Mary Jane, the niece. Joyce does not name her; he describes her: “A red-faced young woman dressed in pansy.” It is only when Aunt Kate addresses her by name that we deduce by a process of elimination that this woman in pansy is Mary Jane. In the scene that follows, the only effective participants are Gabriel, Freddy Malins, Mr Browne, Aunt Kate and Aunt Julia. What happened to Gretta? Is she among the dancers or present but silent? There is a passing reference to an offstage guest, Bartell D’Arcy, who apparently never left the drawing room at the conclusion of the first set of dancing.

Freddy is drunk but manageable. He tries to tell a story to Mr Browne but laughter impedes his efforts. The announcement of the Freddy Malins theme, its development and its first exposition by the very fact that it can convincingly be described in these terms accredits its importance. He is not only what he is but also evocative of the full characteristics of those with whom he is involved. More importantly, his anticipated arrival and his reappearance later in the conversation of Gabriel with Gretta defines Freddy as the Real Absence, the peculiar version that Joyce created on the basis of the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence (see Appendix.)

Joyce interrupts his narration with a row of dots. The narrative resumes in the drawing room since Mary Jane is playing the piano for the entertainment of the guests. Gabriel regards her performance as empty virtuosity. He lets his attention and mind wander. He remembers a vest his mother had made for him (very like the vest, an heirloom, that Joyce wore on festive occasions) and studies a photograph of his mother and his brother Constantine. There is a photograph of Joyce and his mother like the one described. Constantine is a priest, a senior curate. The substitution of an absent brother who is a senior curate for the present younger brother is not an accident. This was a central fixation of Joyce, not the oldest son of his parents but merely the oldest surviving son. His sense of enjoying an undeserved position is found in all his works. Its presence in Dubliners has been noted above. It shapes the opening of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and is a theme in Ulysses where ironically the pro tem spiritual father is already the physical father of a son that is dead and comes to a crisis in the conflict between Shem and Shaun in Finnegans Wake. The issue emerges with great clarity (for Finnegans Wake) at 193.31 where Mercius (Shem) begins his self-defense with a pun on dominus vobiscum (The lord be with you). Instead he makes a revealing error and says “Domine vopiscus” vopiscus is a Latin word for one of a pair of twins born alive after the premature death of the other.

Gabriel joins in the dancing and his partner is Molly Ivors. She attacks him for his writing reviews for an anti-nationalist paper. Although he finds no acceptable way to cope with her attack, she herself abandons the subject. After a short conversation on a less controversial topic, she enters a dangerous area again when she urges him to vacation in west Ireland instead of in Europe, to become, in fact, a nationalist instead of an internationalist. The dynamics of the conversation carry him on to say more than he wishes and he is dismayed both with himself and with her.

The dance over, he retreats to “a remote corner of the room” where he listens to Freddy’s mother. While she rambles foolishly, he tries to overcome his anger. Gretta joins them. Molly talked to her and said that she and Gabriel had had a falling out. In passing, Gretta mentions Bartell D’Arcy whom she describes as difficult and conceited. Gabriel tells her that Molly wanted him to vacation in Galway instead of Europe. The idea delights Gretta who comes from Galway but Gabriel is cold, tells her that she can go by herself. She professes mock dismay to Mrs Malins at his bad behavior but this is an indication that, although Gabriel and Gretta are both Irish, this is not necessarily a bond.

Mrs Malins resumes her prattle after Gretta leaves. Gabriel thinks again about the
speech and the quotation, ignoring the more important matter of his cold behavior to his wife. Freddy comes to chat with his mother. Gabriel makes room for him and stands alone by a window. The party seems in a temporary lull. He wishes that he could be outside, away from the party. He again thinks of his speech, contemplates adding a passage to revenge himself on Molly Ivors and dismisses his aunts as “two ignorant old women.”

In contrast to the brutality of Gabriel’s thought is the rapt attention that Freddy gives to Julia Morkan’s singing. He applauds, indeed, after everyone else has stopped and vociferates enthusiastically. Aunt Kate attacks the recent policy of excluding women from church music. Mary Jane urges her to desist lest she give scandal to Mr Browne, a Protestant. Aunt Kate especially comments on Father Healy as the immediate villain in this situation. For obvious reasons, “Healy” is Joyce’s favorite name for Irish traitors.

The importance of music, a theme of the supper conversation, is characteristic of some colonized societies. The colonizing force repressed the more incendiary freedoms and reduced the natives to a kind of peasant culture. In this respect the situation in Ireland was like that of Bohemia after the defeat in 1620 of the native dissenters by the foreign Austrians. Thus, here as elsewhere, Joyce emphasizes the colonial base of Irish life and its psychological insularity.

Molly Ivors, despite Mary Jane and Gretta’s protests, will not stay for supper. Her only excuse is the rude one that she is not hungry. There is the same lack of consideration here as in her conversation with Gabriel. A radical, she sees herself as free from the burden of courtesy. Gabriel regains some of his composure with the early departure of Molly and he performs happily as, a fact ripe with implications, the dispenser of the bounty of others. And in this light we can later see it to be true of his relationship to Gretta.

Joyce, as usual, describes the food with zest. It surpasses in sheer physicality of detail the famous Christmas dinner in A Portrait. The conversation, about musical performers rather than music, is for the most part pleasant. Freddy interjects a belligerent note when he defends the position that a black singer can have a beautiful voice, a challenge that no one chooses to agree with or to take up. Mrs Malins suddenly speaks about Freddy’s projected trip to the monks at Mount Melleray. The ways and intentions of the monks to Mr Browne, a Protestant, are difficult for him to understand and the ill-informed explanations from Aunt Kate and Freddy are unhelpful.

Freddy Malins, with Joyce’s usual slapdash effort at changing the name, was based on Edward Atherton Malins who began work at the rates office in 1883 and, as a dedicated drinker, became, of course, a friend of John Joyce. There is a quiet joke in the apparently innocuous remark that Freddy is going to stay at Mount Melleray. So did Edward Atherton – to dry out after a dangerous bout of alchoholic abuse. Note also that (lines 345 and 1065) Freddy is sometimes called “Teddy.”

D’Arcy refuses wine at dinner until someone whispers to him. What the message was Joyce does not tell us but presumably it dealt with the need for wine so that he could toast his hostesses at the appropriate time. With many clever and scarcely perceptible touches Joyce builds up an image of an unmannered person, out of place and ill at ease.

Before Gabriel gives his speech he has a vision of snow outside and of people perhaps loitering by the house listening to the music and festive noises. During the speech Browne is vociferous with his interjections for, although there are only two, they are the only ones.

Not all the guests, a greater number probably than those who are named, sit down to supper since, as Gabriel begins his speech, he hears the piano and the sweeping of skirts as the dancers move in time to the music. What separates diners from dancers is not expressed but one observes that Mary Jane sees to the supper needs of her students.

Like the intense but superficial love of music, rhetoric, with or without content, had an enormous attraction for these colonized Irish. Joyce loved words and, although he was partly sardonic about the regard that the Irish had for speeches, he too loved speeches. Gabriel’s speech is sonorous and polished. The slur against Molly Ivors is there but the Browning is not. Gabriel does, however, include a phrase of his own from his review of Browning. The phrase seems ordinary enough and Gabriel is more pleased with it than the reader.

The pushy Mr Browne leads the singing in honor of the hostesses after the speech but Freddy conducts it with his spoon.

Another line of dots signals another interruption. The guests are leaving, most of them have already left. Gabriel, Kate, Julia (who does not speak although at one point she is described as speaking), Freddy, his mother and Mr Browne are in and out of the entranceway. Bartell D’Arcy and Miss O’Callaghan, guest and pianist, are in the drawing room and Gretta stands outside the drawing room in the upstairs hall. She stands where earlier Gabriel had stood but for her the door is open. Gabriel, elated by his speech, tells a story about his grandfather.

The others in the hall attend to the departure of Freddy, his mother and Mr Browne. Gabriel watches Gretta and deduces that she is listening to Bartell D’Arcy singing. (Since he refused to sing when the guests were present, his singing now is another proof of his underbred behavior.) Gabriel indulges in artistic speculations that seem slightly tawdry and undeveloped. He sounds, in fact, like Mr Bloom on an off day.

When D’Arcy comes downstairs and Mary Jane twits him about singing, he is abrupt and rude. Taken aback, everyone talks about the weather, especially the snow. Mary Jane quotes the morning newspapers: “that snow is general over all of Ireland.” Gabriel perceives how beautiful Gretta is as she stands aloof, wrapped in her own thoughts.

Gretta, accompanied by Mr D’Arcy and followed by Gabriel (with Miss O’Calaghan although we must deduce this from her sudden appearance later in the cab), walk together to the quay in search of a cab. Gabriel fondly remembers incidents from the early part of his life with Gretta. The cold reminds him of how, on a similar day, they watched a glass worker through a window. His thoughts become warmer, erotic.

Gretta and Gabriel leave the cab first and enter their hotel. The porter sees them to their room as Gabriel’s desire for Gretta increases. In the room he looks for the right moment to approach her and he fills the interval by telling her of his surprise when Freddy repaid a loan to him. She responds warmly to him at the instance, so casually disclosed, of his generosity.

He thinks this is his opportunity but makes the mistake of asking her what she is thinking. Her answer, delivered in small installments, diverts him from his intentions because he begins to understand that his life was not as he thought it was.

She is thinking of Bartell D’Arcy’s song. It was once sung for her by another. She leaves Gabriel’s embrace, sits on the bed and covers her face. (note that Joyce does not say that she cries. She covers her face. A few lines later she wipes away her tears. Joyce was a great one for clever inferences like the poor neglected Miss O’Calaghan noted above.) Gretta reveals that she had a vivid and important life that Gabriel does not share. He is, by turns, angry, cold, ironic. Even though he learns that Michael Furey is dead, he sees him as a rival. He sees himself as a usurper, a flunkey to his aunts, a supercilious pretender to his countrymen and a clown with common sexual appetites: in short, a pitiful figure.

There is a connection between these feelings and the picture of his mother and his brother Constantine. This is Joyce with his vopiscan burden of guilt, a mere son and not the true heir. Since Michael and Gabriel were both archangels, they are in a manner brothers and Joyce derived the names from this. Michael Furey enjoyed chronological primacy in Gretta’s affections and is dead. He is thus to Gabriel what Joyce’s dead, older brother was to Joyce. “A vague terror seized Gabriel . . . as if . . . some impalpable and vindictive being was coming against him.”

Although the number of lines which focus on Gretta are few, they are crucial. Such a shift away from Gabriel produces the highly effective simplicity of the closing pages. Gretta’s directness disarms his ego just as the intensity of her unshared past, a larger emotional world than he can know, subdues his lust. His reactions to her story are indistinct and tentative. They bring, however, this third section to an end.

Joyce’s interruption symbol this time is a blank line instead of a row of dots. Usage seems inconsistent throughout the stories. I am tempted to say that the blank line is the more decisive of the two but he uses a row of dots in “Eveline” for an interruption involving reversal of attitude and change of place, location and time. In “A Painful Case” a blank line sweeps away the newspaper account and shows us Mr Duffy, consciously self-righteous, but impelled to act in ways that contradict his professed complacency.

Gabriel by his ideas, his tastes and his sensitivities has been isolated from others but always found solace in his self-esteem. Michael Furey has destroyed this. Michael was first in Gretta’s love and Gretta is incapable of perceiving the importance that this has for Gabriel. She is now asleep. Gabriel is alone in the absolute sense of psychological isolation. He is in his reduced state that bare, unaccommodated thing perceived by Lear.

His mood is detached and, when he wonders if Gretta and Michael had been physically intimate, it is an almost impersonal speculation. He ponders on the mortality of his aunts and, for some reason (perhaps actual family history), thinks Julia is closer to death than Kate. (We learn incidentally the title of the song that Julia sang at the party. Joyce is a master of rewarding the careful reader.) Gabriel may have achieved a less personal level of perception but he swoons as he watches the snow; it is a sensual experience, a gratification of his and Joyce’s masochistic desire to be betrayed. This unfolds, however, into a carefully cadenced, beautiful conclusion that has many of the resonances of the Catholic concept of the communion of saints, the union of the church militant with the church triumphant. A number of subterranean conflicts enrich Joyce’s works with irreconcilable tensions. One was that of the semi-disbeliever who retained many of the trappings of Catholicism, both philosophical and popular. Another was that of a writer who aspired to be a poet but seldom fulfilled this aspiration unless he was writing prose.

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About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: